Aug 11, 2014
Jesse

In Defense of Shamrock Shakes

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on March 17, 2014. 

 In Defense of Shamrock ShakesOur Eating Lives features stories about how food, cooking, and eating have shaped who we are and how we live.

I remember my first Shamrock Shake well: I was in Kindergarten, and it was snack time at our St. Patrick’s Day party. Mrs. Ready poured something green from a blender into 30 tiny paper cups. I’m sure we had other special activities that day: pin the pot o’ gold on the rainbow, maybe. Catch the leprechaun, perhaps. But the only thing I remember from that day was that tiny green shake. I knew shakes came in chocolate and vanilla, even strawberry, but this magical green thing, this was something to tell mommy about.

I told my mom about Shamrock Shakes when I got home, and she, of course, already knew and loved them. This began my lifelong love of the magical green ice cream. It may help that my birthday falls just before St. Patrick’s day, so the shakes are a yearly harbinger of birthday celebrations to come. It probably also helps that I’m a South Side [of Chicago] Irish girl, so I am used to seeing things dyed a bright green in March, and it seems perfectly normal to me.

As February draws to a close and I start to express my excitement about Shamrock Shakes (I also have other hobbies, I promise), I get one of two reactions. One is a dreamy-eyed nostalgia, stories of Marches gone by, a longing for the celebratory “Shamrock Shakes are Back” banners along highways. These are my people. We will go through the drive-thru together and we will understand each other. The other reaction is one of abject horror that I would eat something “shamrock” flavored/eat something with that many calories/eat at McDonald’s/eat something that color. To these people I say, come on. Calm down. It will be okay. I am not asking you to rub yellow no. 5 on your baby’s delicate face. I am not saying you need to eat a Shamrock Shake every day they are available. (Contrary to popular belief, not even I do that. Look at me; I’m eating vegetables as we speak.)

I understand that Shamrock Shakes are not the the healthiest food in the world. This is why it’s good they are saved for special occasions. I understand that they do not have the purest ingredients. That is not ideal. But when you look at the great vastness of foods you will eat in your lifetime, I do not think that one or two green shakes a year will make that much of a difference. In fact, I would argue that your life will even be improved by the addition of a ‘Shake or two.

Shamrock Shakes are delicious. They are a light, delicate vanilla mint, not nearly as strong as as your typical mint chocolate chip ice cream. They are like eating the vanilla mint clouds which hang over Ireland. (The actual clouds in actual Ireland are vanilla mint. The more you know.) When McDonald’s introduced McCafe, they started serving their shakes in fancy clear plastic cups with whipped cream and a cherry. I think the whipped cream tips the flavor balance a little too far in the “vanilla” direction, but I can’t help appreciating the cherry, even if it’s not traditional. I am only human.

While I love how Shamrock Shakes taste, that is probably not what I love best about them. I love nostalgia. I love small holidays. I love making traditions and inventing reasons to celebrate, and I love dragging friends along for the celebration. Announcing to whoever is close by “Ohmygosh, you haven’t had a Shamrock Shake? I’m fixing that that right now.” and then making a late-night run is as much of the fun of the shake as drinking it is.

So as we see the end of this harsh (for most of the US, at least) winter and look forward to spring, I invite you to partake in this small tradition, to celebrate a minor holiday in a minor way, to shake off your March doldrums with a quick trip to a fast food restaurant to pick up a Shamrock Shake, the shake that is, to borrow Uncle O’Grimacey’s line, the most beautiful green that you’ve ever seen.

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Aug 4, 2014
Jesse

Breakfast Classic: Egg-in-a-Hole

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on April 30, 2014. 

Food Riot Egg in a Hole

I recently found myself short on groceries. My usual strategy in these cases is to fry up a couple of eggs, but, horror of horrors, I was left with just one egg. One egg scrambled isn’t enough for a grown human. A one-egg omelette is adorable, but not a meal. One egg fried is okay, but I needed something more. Just as I descended into panic, I remembered egg-in-a-hole, the second recipe I ever learned.

My first recipe came from the Klutz Kids cookbook, the one that came with plastic measuring spoons, and which I got in my Easter basket around 1992 or so. My grandma said we could cook a recipe from it, so I flipped through to find the best one. Not only did Tuna Wiggle have the word “wiggle” in the title, but it included a tip about throwing noodles against a wall to see if they were done. Perfect. What six year old wouldn’t love a recipe that involved throwing things? We made the tuna casserole, threw the noodles, and never cooked that particular recipe ever again.

My second recipe, however, became a lifelong staple. This recipe, appetizingly named “egg-in-a-hole” has been my breakfast, lunch, and last-minute dinner salvation a thousand times. Egg-in-a-hole, also called eggies-in-a-basket or toad-in-a-hole or any number of other charming, British-sounding names, is an egg fried into a hole made in a piece of toast.

Couldn’t you just make a fried egg on toast? you ask. Nope. Frying the two together gives them both a buttery crust that you can’t get from toast-from-a-toaster.

To make egg-in-a-hole, you will need one piece of bread (preferably a soft multi-grain), one large egg, butter, and a small cup or cookie cutter for making a basket for your eggie. This needs to be smaller than you think: something 1-2 inches in diameter, no bigger. Basically, something that is only a little larger than the size of a egg yolk. You want it to be small enough that the egg fills up the hole in the bread, but you want the egg to fill up the space. You can use a juice cup or small jam jar. I have made a handy diagram to help you understand the construction of the delicacy.

Helpful Egg-in-a-Hole Diagram
Cut out your hole using your cup, but make sure you save the bread that became the hole–that little bread round is the best part. Melt butter into your favorite small frying pan, and gently drop your holey piece of bread into the the butter, being careful not to rip the bread. If you do, don’t worry. Just wiggle it closed and the egg will act like glue. Fry the bread for a few seconds to give it a head start.

Break the egg into the hole and fry. You’ll want to watch to make sure you’re not overcooking the egg, but still getting both sides of the bread browned appropriately. You can do it. I believe in you. When the egg is stable enough to flip, lift it out of the pan with a spatula and add more butter. More butter is always better. Flip the egg back into the pan and let it it finish cooking to your preferred level of doneness. Add salt. Top with the little fried round, or eat the little fried round while you’re waiting for the coffee to be done. Serve.I hope you haven’t eaten your bread round. I know it’s tempting to eat something so little and cute, but please imagine how much better it will be once it’s been fried in butter and salted. I know. Throw the round into the pan with your toast. Make sure it has sufficient butter. Fat is good for you now. There are studies.

If you have timed everything perfectly, you will have an over-easy egg yolk which can be sopped up with toast. If you have timed everything less-than-perfectly, you will still have a perfect, easy breakfast/lunch/dinner.

 

Egg-in-a-Hole IRL

 

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Jul 28, 2014
Jesse

What I Learned While Binge-Watching Chopped

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on March 18, 2014. 

What I Learned While Binge-Watching ChoppedAfter my cableless self tried and failed to access the Olympics through one of NBC’s ten thousand Olympics apps, I gave up and instead went for something with a similar level of diversity, competition, triumph of human spirit, but with more crepes.

Yes, while the rest of the world watched incredible athletes push things/themselves over ice a few thousand times, I binge-watched the Food Network’s “Chopped.” As stated, this show has everything: heart-warming stories, interpersonal drama, character development, exotic foods, clock-ticking excitement, accents, and finishing salt.

“Chopped,” if you haven’t seen it, is one of the Food Network’s most popular shows. It’s a cooking competition for professional chefs. Four chefs, usually from very different backgrounds, are given three picnic baskets, one per course, of insane, incongruous ingredients which they must creatively incorporate into a delicious dish and serve to the judges. The judges’ panel is made up of famous chefs and restaurateurs, some from the Food Network stable and some not. One contestant is eliminated at the end of each round, and at the end, the winner goes home with $10,000.

While some might argue that prime time Food Network has become less educational, I disagree. Not only have I learned about a bunch of ingredients and techniques from watching “Chopped,” I’ve also picked up some valuable life lessons.

1) You are not above any ingredient

The whole point of the show is to see what happens when trained chefs are pushed outside of their comfort zones with weird food and time limits. The fastest way for a chef to lose a round is to turn up their nose at an ingredient. “Um, I don’t even eat leftovers,” said one, twenty minutes before being sent home on a leftovers-themed episode. “Do you know how many chemicals are in this snack cake?” said another, before losing on a nostalgia episode. Why yes, yes I do know how many chemicals are in that snack cake, but that’s not the point. The point is you take that snack cake and you make me a beautiful meal that transforms those sprinkles, darnit.

Life lesson: You’re not above small tasks. The trash has to be taken out, the leftovers have to be repurposed. The fastest way to move forward is figure out what needs to be done and do it.

2) Sob stories get you nowhere

Oh, so the chef grew up in a tough neighborhood and brought himself up by the bootstraps and now he wants to win “Chopped” to prove to himself that he’s made it? Well, that’s great, but his competitor was hit by a train and he’s out to prove he can still use his arms and legs. (This was a really great episode, guys.) While, yes, a chef’s personal triumph is impressive and may have gotten him on the show in the first place, he can’t rely on that to get him to round two.

Life lesson: Your story is great, but it’s not going to win you any awards. When it comes down to it, you move forward because of your talent and hard work, not your past trials.

3) Keep a cool head

I see this time and time again: a chef goes to flambe a thing, and all of a sudden their whole stovetop is on fire. They have two choices: flap their hands and yell while their food burns, or stay calm and throw some baking soda on it or cover the flames with a pot lid. My favorite was when a chef blew up her food, and while she was still flapping her hands, her competitor turned around, dosed her station with baking soda, and went back to chopping onions without missing a beat.

Life lesson: When your life starts to go up in smoke, stay calm. Identify the problem, identify the solution, take care of it, and move on.

5) It’s not a desert without a cookie

It’s the final round, and the chef has made some beautiful ice cream and served it with sauce and some fresh berries. The ice cream is original, the sauce brings depth, and the berries provide freshness. It’s a beautiful, well-rounded dessert, or so the chef thinks. When she serves it to the judges, they screw up their faces. Yes, it’s delicious, but couldn’t you have included a tuile? Maybe a cookie might have rounded this out? Did you even turn on your oven?  This is dessert, for goodness’ sake. It’s not a proper dessert without a baked good, and it’s a better dessert if that baked good is a cookie.

Life lesson: Always have cookies on hand.

4) Being “chopped” is not the end of the world

So she forgot a basket ingredient, or she undercooked her chicken, or, heaven-forbid, she cut herself and bled onto the plate. And now Ted Allen is lifting the cloche and showing her failed dish. And now the judges are listing her faults. “And these are just some of the reasons we had to chop you” is ringing in her ears as she walks down the back hallway, out to do her final interview segment. Again, she has a few ways she can go: she can criticize the judges’ decision, she can fling herself into the depths of despair,  or she can be disappointed, but learn from her mistakes. The contestants who see their loss as a growth opportunity always leave the best taste in the viewers’s mouths.

Life lesson: Take constructive criticism to heart and use your failures as a way to move forward, not back

Are you a Chopped fan? Have you learned any great life lessons? Or are you more of a “turn the TV on, veg out” type?

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Jul 21, 2014
Jesse

Take, Taste, Toss: Trader Joe’s Frozen Foods

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on May 12, 2014. 

Take, Taste, Toss: Trader Joe's Frozen Foods

Our contributors give you brief reviews of recent cookbooks/ kitchen gadgets/ recipes they’ve tried, and tell you whether you should take it home, just give it a taste, or toss it out.

I’ve said before that Trader Joe’s frozen meals are my go-to no-stress quick dinner. I probably eat one of their Indian-type frozen dinners a week, and I make sure I always have a few on hand for emergencies. Compared to other “healthy” frozen dinners, TJ’s taste the most like good take-out, if not home-cooked. (Note: yes, I call Trader Joe’s by a nickname. And, yes, everything Trader Joe’s sells is healthy. This is a proven fact as shown by all the leaves in their advertising. Shut up. I know.) So, here’s a rundown of some of my favorites (and maybe not so favorites).

Image from Brand Eating
Image from Brand Eating

Trader Joe’s Butter Chicken

Butter chicken is an Indian dish of yogurt-marinated chicken in a creamy tomato sauce, traditionally made in a tandoor. I do not have a tandoor. I do have a local Indian buffet, however, and TJ’s version tastes exactly like what I can get for $10.95 on my lunch break, but for less than half the cost . From what I can tell, there is more yogurt and cream in the dish than butter, but there is definitely a buttery silkiness to the chicken. Because the rice and the chicken are in separate compartments, you really have to pour the two together into a bowl, making this slightly difficult for, say, eating at work, but it makes sense that they need to be cooked separately in order to keep from turning to mush. I am just saying.

Verdict: Take

trader joes ancient grains pizza

Trader Joe’s Ancient Grains Pizza

I have had mixed results with Trader Joe’s frozen pizzas. They’re generally on the small side, making them 1.5 or so of a serving, which of course means that they are magically just one serving. Their crusts tend to be either too crackery or too doughy, which could be my unreliable oven, but I don’t think it’s just that. I am, however, very interested in this whole “ancient grains” trend, and, I mean, I am always willing to give pizza another chance. This pizza has my favorite crust of all the Trader Joe’s pizza crusts, including their pre-packaged bake-your-own crust. It’s nutty and wholesome-tasting in the best way, and this is probably because of the mix of grains. The first ingredient in the crust is still just regular whole wheat flour, but then comes a mix of millet, einkorn, spelt, sunflower seeds, and flax. A+ frozen pizza crust. The toppings leave a bit to be desired: the cheese is a bit too rich, the cherry tomatoes too sweet, and the asparagus too hard to eat. Like most things in life, these can be balanced out by adding some olives or capers. B- toppings, needs improvement.

Verdict: Taste, with capers.

Trader Joe’s Chocolate Croissants

Trader Joe’s Chocolate Croissants

Chocolate croissants are my gateway pastry. I was strictly a no-sweets girl until a college friend introduced me to chocolate croissants. Reader, I married them. Or at least started a long-term serious relationship with pastries that has since expanded to donuts and pie and all sorts of things I used to ignore. But I’m getting off-topic. Anyway. Chocolate croissants, my true love. I’ve wanted to make them at home for ages, but croissants apparently take several days and water directly from the Seine to make from scratch, so when I saw the frozen chocolate croissants at TJ’s, I knew I had to try them. When you open the package, you get what looks like four little pats of butter. These are the unproofed croissants. These need to rise for six to eight hours, which is not nothing, but it’s also not importing a french guy to make you breakfast, so. Also, watching dough rise is never not magical, and every time I make these croissants, I spend most of my time running back into the kitchen to see what progress has been made and texting pictures of it to my friends and family.

Now, because I love chocolate croissants so much, I’m fairly picky. There are many bad chocolate croissants in the world. These are good croissants. They’re light and fluffy and flaky, and you get to eat them warm out of the oven. There’s a good amount of chocolate, and, unlike many coffee shop croissants, the chocolate isn’t sitting like a brick on the bottom of the pastry. If nothing else, these are worth it just because you can wake up to a warm, fresh pastry without leaving your house.

Verdict: Take. Take them on a regular 6-8 hour rotation.

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Jul 14, 2014
Jesse

Ode to a Chicago Hot Dog

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on June 3, 2014.

Ode to a Chicago Hot DogThey were a family tradition long before I knew they were a Chicago tradition. I’d order “a cheese dog with everything but mustard, onions, and peppers. And no celery salt.” My dad said that you can’t call it “everything” if it’s actually missing four ingredients, but that logic didn’t trump the coolness of that “with everything.”

Over the years, my tastes matured and I slowly added more ingredients to my hot dog, until I could order the traditional “everything”: sesame seed bun, Vienna sausage, onion, tomato, cucumber, bright green relish, mustard, celery salt, a pickle spear, pickled sport peppers, and, occasionally, melted American cheese.

(You could also substitute a Maxwell Street Polish [strong vowels on that, please, like you were born here: MAx-wel Street PO-lish SA-sich], the Chicago dog’s near cousin, slightly spicier, with grilled onions, mustard, and maybe some sport peppers. That would be acceptable. But that is not what we are talking about today.)

You’ve probably noticed something missing from the ingredient list. Can we talk about ketchup? And why it doesn’t belong on a Chicago hot dog? Is it because we have some sort of anti-Heinz vendetta? No. It’s because ketchup is mostly sugar, and sugar is a flavor killer. (This is why so many little kids put ketchup on everything: it dulls the taste of whatever it is they’re uncomfortable eating.) The Chicago dog is a symphony of vinegar (see: relish, pickles, mustard, sport peppers). The high sugar levels in ketchup dull the vinegar in the ketchup itself, and it would kill the beautiful balance of the dog.

You may use ketchup on your fries.

A Chicago hot dog can come from a chain restaurant (Portillo’s always works), but it should come from a humid hole in the wall named “Frank’s Red Hots” or “George’s Hot Dogs” or “Tony’s Steamers.” A proper dog is steamed, not grilled, and the process, combined with the sticky Chicago summer, should make the restaurant feel like a sauna. I suggest you eat outside.

I would argue that the steam is what makes this food feel like Chicago. We built our city on a swamp, and now we nearly drown in humidity when it gets warm. The steamed hot dogs and buns are the wonderful, terrible heat, and the fresh vegetables and bright vinegar are what get us through. The land and the lake. For me, they’re a tie to the city and the suburbs I grew up in. A chance to exercise my accent. A reminder of Sunday drives with my family. For me, a Chicago hot dog is a Chicago summer.

 

 

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Jul 7, 2014
Jesse

Five Tips for Cooking for One

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on April 14, 2004, and was picked up by Huffington Post here on Apri 18, 2014. 

Five Tips for Cooking for One

I often hear people describe cooking for one as depressing, and, while I usually nod sympathetically, I have almost never found that to be the case. (I do admit to finding it to be sometimes exhausting. Did you know that I expect to eat dinner every single day? I can be very high maintenance.) Usually, though, I consider cooking for myself to be a creative outlet at the end of a long day of staring at a computer screen, and unlike crocheting or writing, when I’m finished cooking, I get to eat the fruits of my labor. After a few years of cooking for one, I’ve figured out a few strategies to make it a little less arduous.

Cook in Batches
Try cooking in big batches. Most recipes are made for 4-6 people anyway, so go forth and eat your leftovers. I like to make a vat of soup on the weekends and bring it to work for lunch for the rest of the week. The afternoons seem to go a lot more smoothly after I’ve had an interesting and filling lunch. I also save a lot of money this way, and am less tempted to run out for fast food on impulse. Win/win.

Reuse Ingredients
I’m not talking about using that curry powder more than once (but, that, too). Reuse ingredients that take extra work. These are the often the ingredients that give foods complex flavors and textures, so don’t waste them. If you’re going to spend half an hour caramelizing onions for a pizza, set some aside for a sandwich the next day. Roasting corn for a salad? Throw some in your soup. My favorite way to do this is to make Naturally Ella’s vegetarian masala, and then use the leftover masala paste for her sweet potato masala skillet.

Have a Plan
There is nothing worse than coming home from a long day of work to see what your live-in chef has prepared for you, only to realize that not only has she not made dinner for you, but she didn’t even do the grocery shopping, and worst of all, she is imaginary. Meal planning sounds like something that people who use “coupon” as a verb do, but having an idea of what you’re going to eat for the week is a great way to eliminate a lot of stress and way-later-than-you-meant-them-to-be meals. Twenty minutes of googling recipes and making a list can save a lot of stress during the week.

Experiment
One of my favorite things about cooking for myself is that I can make whatever I want. I’m not held back by anyone else’s voluntary or involuntary dietary restrictions. I don’t even have to worry if the food tastes good, because the only one affected by the potential food disaster is me. I got the creative experience out of it, which is part of the reason I made dinner in the first place. Try something new! Recreate something you ate in a restaurant! Grab to random ingredients from your fridge and make them into dinner!

Relax
You live by yourself. One of the benefits of that is the flexibility. If you don’t feel like cooking, you don’t always have to. I usually plan for at least one frozen dinner night, because it’s likely that I’m going to be too busy or too tired at some point. And, hey, Trader Joe’s makes delicious frozen dinners.

Okay, your turn. Got any cooking for one tips for me?

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Oct 4, 2013
Jesse

In Which I Reward Myself for Surviving a Third Year

It’s that time again! The time of year where I reward myself for completing basic survival tasks and cover the highlights of the last 365 days. Today Yesterday, October 3, is was my three-year anniversary of living on my own.

I’ll be honest: I almost didn’t have an award ceremony this year. Not because I don’t like collecting badges to celebrate my achievements, but because for the first time, this whole “adult” thing feels like something I am, not something I put on. (Not to say I’m getting better at it or anything. I might argue that I peaked in year two and it’s all YA novels and frozen dinners from here.)

However. I like the idea of rounding this out with year three, and besides, how many formal occasions does a girl get to attend? Cue pomp, circumstance.

We went for a low-key, no-curtain look this year

***

The Hey, What Happened to Your Roommate? Award

You know what's fun about far-away friends? The mail.

This one time, I met a girl on the Internet and we decided to be roommates. It was an excellent decision, and worked out nicely for some time until she moved back to the Internet. I have mostly forgiven her, and that’s mostly because she sends me enough animated gifs on a daily basis that it’s almost like having a roommate.

***

The I Thought You Already Had a Cat… Award

She's a lot fluffier than this picture implies

No, but I can see where you might be confused. I catsat for a few months, which gave me the opportunity to warm my landlord up to the idea of me having a cat. Then I gave that cat back, panicked about commitment for a few weeks, and then I brought home Bernadette. She is not technically named after the book, the song, or the Peters, but the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time with each of those things in the last year heavily influenced my decision.

Can I gush for a second? Yeah I can, it’s my blog. Ok, these three years were the longest I’ve lived without animals (barring the mice) ever. It was unpleasant. I was raised with the understanding that animals are essential, so not having any around felt unnatural. I had to resist the urge to dognap dogs on walks. I day-dreamed about cuddling the canadian geese that hang out in parking lots. (They are totally hug-sized. And shaped. Like huggable footballs with necks. I stand by this.) So, now I have my Bernadette. She has transformed from a crabby middle-aged lady in a cage to practically a kitten. There are few things as satisfying as loving a scared little creature until it learns it can trust people again.

***

The Didn’t You Blog About Finding a Church Like Two Years Ago? Award

So, they gave me this little cross necklace when I joined. Wasn't that nice of them?

Yeah, but that didn’t work out. Instead I bounced around for a couple more years and tried to figure out what exactly I was looking for. I never really decided what that was, but I seem to have found it. I enjoy going to church for the first time since college. I look forward to it. It’s refreshing and sets me up for the week. It’s a good church.

***

The So This Is Why You Talk about Tacos So Much Award

True friends help you attain your dreams...like your dream of owning a brass armadillo

As I was looking back for defining moments over the last year, I realized that I had been to Austin, TX, twice. In fact, one of the reasons that I forgave Roommate for leaving me was that I would get to visit her there. In my two trips to Austin, I saw: tacos, longhorns, bluebonnets, queso, street art, internet friends, Book People, bronies, tacos, stars both big and bright, yarnbombing, BBQ, cacti, irony, a parade of lowriders showing off their hydraulics, tacos, Zooey Deschanel. In my two trips to Austin, I did not see: the famous bridge bats, brass armadillos. In my two trips to Austin, I firmly believe I saw: Ryan Gosling. You people should just believe me. Also, tacos.

***

The What Is It With You And The Celebrity Sightings? Award

It was way to warm to be wearing a felt hat in Texas, Zooey. That was your tell.

For many years, my biggest brush with celebrity (outside of organized meetings like book signings and Disney World character breakfasts) was that one time Oprah’s Stedman ran into me while crossing Michigan Avenue. Then, in the last year, I’ve had three distinct interactions. Now, I’m not saying that celebrities are more special than other people, but I am saying it is fun to see people that you’re used to seeing on giant screens and in magazines completely out of context. Stars! They’re Just Like Us!

1) Ryan Gosling, while walking down South Congress with Sharone and Christine. This is questionable, but I like things in threes and I know he was there that weekend, so we’re going with it.

2) Zooey Deschanel, while standing in line at the a Austin airport. I heard someone talking in ZD’s voice, turned around to look, and a very small, very shiny person in over-sized sunglasses and an unseasonably warm hat clapped a hand over her mouth. She had to take the hat and glasses off for security and looked terrified that she’d be besieged by adorable Austin-dwelling Zooeyites. I have never been so grateful to not need sunglasses and a bodyguard.

3) Anne Lamott at the Picasso in Chicago exhibit at the Art Institute. There I was, minding my own business, trying to appreciate noses on multiple planes or something, when I said to my friend Kristin, “Um, that lady. The blonde one with the dreads. Is that Anne Lamott?” And so commenced a 20 minute very cool, covert Anne Lamott-stalking period. After a little while, I got up the courage to say hello and tell her how much I (and my mom) appreciate her, and she thanked me and turned the conversation to Picasso, and how amazing it was just to be in the same room with something that great. Her whole face crinkles when she smiles.

***

The Was I Supposed to Ask About the Tomatoes? Award

Actually, my watering can is shaped like a duck and isn't really functional. I might get a big-girl watering can eventually.

I mean, you don’t have to. But, yes, I did grow a plant that produced food which I could eat. It was good, but next year I should probably remember to water more.

***

And that’s this year, approximately. It was a learning year more than a doing year, really, but that’s ok. Do me a favor and bring your programs out with you. It makes clean-up a lot easier for the ushers.

In case you’re wondering, here’s my first and my second award ceremony.

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May 29, 2013
Jesse

An Explanation of Sorts

20130529-003119.jpgI have a “no apologies” policy with this blog. I know that if I every time there’s a long stretch between posts I write an “Oh my gosh I’m so sorry I haven’t posted” introduction, I’ll shame myself into never posting at all, and that’s not the point of this thing.

(Which might raise the question, what is the point of this thing? We here at Staircase Wit the Blog think that that is an excellent question, and we will totally get back to you on that.)

This year has not gone as planned. I made a lot of promises to myself that I just wasn’t able to keep. I’m a little embarrassed that I made those grand pronouncements at the beginning of the year, and then remade those pronouncements a month later, and now I’m writing this.

So this is a sort of apology, sort of explanation, sort of prime-the-pump kind of blog post. I’m wiping the dust off the ol’ WordPress admin tools and trying to get my fingers to remember what it’s like to type words that aren’t for work emails.

Call this my six month update. (I know it’s May. It’s a long month. Just go with it.) I gave myself two goals this year: get stuff done, and get a cat. While I can’t report that I have a cat, I can say that I have Nefarious Plans, and that they are In Motion. As far as getting things done? Well, does learning things count? I’ve been learning things. Lots of things. About trust and faith and grace and thankfulness. I’ve put in a request to not learn anything new for the rest of the year, but I have a funny feeling that this is not a year for coasting. (Not to say that it’s been a downright terrible year. There have been some amazing highlights and some remarkable blessings thrown in with the hard stuff and as a result of the hard stuff.)

Honestly? I have no idea what this year is going to look like, or if I’m going to do accomplish anything close to what I had planned. I just wanted to do the bloggy equivalent of stretching my legs, flexing my muscles, and getting some of the kinks out of my neck.

So, there’s me. How are you?

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Mar 22, 2013
Jesse

Fox & Squid

I recently faced a major shortcoming in my life. “Major” might be the wrong word. Also maybe not “shortcoming.” The word I’m looking for is whatever you call it when you realize that you really want to hang art on your walls, but you don’t want to/can’t pay more money for it. That word. It’s probably German, like most good words about frugality and desire.

All of this to say, I made some stuff. I wanted some things to hang on my wall, so I went to my old standbys: an X-acto knife and some pretty paper.

What I like about making pictures this way is that I can’t exactly draw, but I really like looking at things and breaking them down into their most basic shapes, and then making a sort of puzzle, except I’m both making the pieces and then putting them together.

I made the first thing around the time I read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. The book wasn’t everything I wanted it to be, but I loved the cover and the image of the orange fox in the white snow (and it reminded me a bit of this that I made a few Christmases ago). Also, we had a few foxes in our yard and on our street growing up, and they’re such pretty, graceful animals. (Sometimes we mistook them for stray cats. Hilarity ensued.)

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I was tempted to make Blue Boy and Pinkie foxes, but then they released the first ever footage of the giant squid, and I had cephalopods on the brain even more than I usually do. So, now it’s more like Fox Boy and Squidy, but let’s never call them that.

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I hung them in these gold frames that I found at a thrift store. I’m pretty sure I made a solemn oath to not hang the frames without painting something less gaudy, but I’m also pretty sure oaths made via text message while in the throes of thrifting aren’t admissible in a court of law. Or my apartment.

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I thought that how I made this last thing was sort of interesting, so I’d write it like a tutorial, because I have a deep and true love of DIY blogs. I hold that I have loved ampersands since before it was cool to love ampersands. My proof is that I searched the entire internet for ampersand-themed jewelry back in 2008 and found not a thing. Now you can buy ampersand earrings at every hipster craft fair (and believe me, I do), but I still love them and put them everywhere in my house. I considered trying to free-hand an ampersand to frame, but I had a feeling that that would be disastrous. I was going to print a template, but that would have involved a lot of wires and ink and seemed vaguely bad-retro, so I did this instead.

Using Your iPad as a Lightbox to Make a Pretty Thing

What You’ll Need:
an iPad
scotch tape
tissue paper
X-acto knife
pretty paper in two colors
rubber cement

Decide what letter or punctuation mark you’d like to make. I recommend ampersands because they are prettiest, but you can have opinions, too. Type that character into the iPad word processor of your choice in the font of your choice and in the largest possible font size. (I used Pages so I could use Apple’s default fonts, and the font I used was Didot.)

Take a screenshot of that character by pressing the on/off switch and the home button on your iPad at the same time. This gives an image to manipulate, and is much easier to deal with than an iPad word document.

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Open the image in Photos. This is where the tracing and the tissue paper comes in. My tissue paper was purple and wrinkled, but this probably isn’t necessary. You could even use real tracing paper if you’re that kind of fancy. Cut a piece of tissue paper to be a little larger than the screen of your iPad, and wrap it around, taping on the back of the device. At this point, I laid my frame on the screen and adjusted the size of the ampersand. (The touchscreen still works through the tissue paper. Magic.)

Trace the image with a pencil, but be careful to keep your hand off the screen, or you’ll move the image around. If you do move the image, just move it back using what you’ve already traced as a guideline. It’s kind of like a really easy puzzle from a Nancy Drew game. You know, if you’re into that kinda thing.

Untape the tissue paper from the iPad, being careful not to rip it. Trim the tissue paper down, and tape it to your pretty paper. I like using scrapbook paper because it’s nice and thick and acid free, and you can find every color, texture, and pattern known to man if you go to one of the scrapbooker’s holy places, like Archivers.

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Cut out the character with your X-acto knife. What I love about using X-acto knives is that you’re practically drawing with a knife. (But if you make a mistake, you can’t erase. Work slowly.) Be careful around corners; it’s easy to overshoot. I usually work out from inside corners, which keeps the overshooting at bay.

Glue your cut-out down with rubber cement. I use Q-tips for the small details. Trim your paper to the size of your frame, hang it, and feel proud of yourself. Text a picture of it to your mom.

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Feb 28, 2013
Jesse

Staircase Review, Vol. 2

20130228-235534.jpgCan I call these posts “volumes”? I’m not sure. I just went around and looked at all the magazines in my house (some Martha Stewart Livings and a few literary journals, and the two InStyles from 2006 that are currently employed in maintaining the shape of my brown boots) and could not find a defined industry standard, and THEN I remembered that that’s why God made the CMOS, but just when I opened my copy, I realized that I was really just procrastinating because I gave myself a job, and that job is to write this post, which means that looking up magazine issue numbering styles is only slightly more interesting than usual and why am I even trying to categorize this with magazines, it’s a blog post, and also have I even seen the inside of my medicine cabinet? I really need to take care of that mess. When I’m done writing this post. Because I have an attention span. Like an adult.

So. These are some books I have read recently.


Bel Canto by Ann PatchettBel Canto by Ann Patchett
Bel Canto is the story of a Japanese businessman, Hosokawa, who cares about one thing, and that thing is opera. Hosokawa is invited to meet his favorite soprano at a state event in (an unnamed) South American and goes, knowing that the party is given in his honor, that the South Americans will expect this party to open up trade, and knowing that he will not do any business with the country beyond this party. He goes to see Roxanne Coss, the soprano. The party is hijacked by Spanish-speaking freedom fighters, who, in their confusion, kidnap everyone at the party: Russian business men, French diplomats, American Coss, Japanese Hosokawa, and his translator. There is no common language but the music.

The book feels like a dream. Most of the dialogue goes through the translator, which almost gives it the feeling of listening to a conversation through a glass against a door. (Sometimes I forgot the translator is there until I see him standing in the corner, translating the conversation I was reading reading, and then I was kind of mad at Patchett because how in the world do you do that with just words?) Relationships form around the sopranos singing, and the hostages and kidnappers begin to build a community, and the reader learns about this through a constantly changing perspective. The book is beautiful and hopeful and heartbreaking, as all the best books are. This is a book I will read again and again.

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma StraubLaura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub
Elsa Emerson has grown up in the theater her parents own in Door County, Wisconsin. All she wants is to be on the stage, and once she gets her first part, all she needs is to go to Hollywood. Elsa finds her way, is transformed to Laura Lamont, and climbs her way up to being a real-live movie star.

I like this book because it feels like I could switch out the names and it could be about any starlet. It’s a small story about a larger-than-life time and place. It’s a peek behind the kitchen curtains of the beautiful black-and-white women I’ve always watched, but it’s written in a way that feels true, not voyeuristic. I read this just before listening to Beautiful Ruins, and they were almost perfect companions. While Laura Lamont follows the story of one woman through her childhood on the stage, grown-up stardom, and (spoiler alert) eventual aging, Beautiful Ruins twists five or six storylines together to tell a similar story on a grander scale about golden-age Hollywood, success, failure, love and loss.

Around the Internet
The Extraordinary Science of Junkfood
This is how they get you. There’s nothing in here about Trader Joe’s new rocket-ship-shaped cheese crackers, probably because things shaped like rocket ships are intrinsically healthful.

The Secret Burrito
Speaking of which, this burrito is my new life goal. It’s not even that it sounds that good, it’s just that I like secret burrito codes.

Adventures in Amish Fiction
A lit fic reader takes a look at Amish fiction.

Fireside Magazine Year 2
Remember when I told you about Fireside Magazine and how it’s a fiction magazine dedicated to good stories and paying the writers who write them? Well, they’re working on funding year two of the magazine. It’s kind of a long story, but if the Kickstarter gets funded, I get a share in a pony. So, check it out and consider donating.

Happy March, happy people. This is my favorite month, and not just because I have 31 days to drink 31 shamrock shakes.


By the way, that photo is from the library at the Irish American Heritage Center, where I spent a few hours with my family last weekend. This explains why book titles are in a language you can’t read. Unless you read Gaelic, in which case we should have a discussion about how you’re supposed to tell me when you can read Gaelic.

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This blog belongs to Jesse Doogan.

It contains generally amusing anecdotes and stories of adventures of all sizes. If found, please return this blog to all your friends and family.

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